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The Ada Initiative Has My Back

Bess at PuppetConf 2013
The Ada Initiative has my back. In the past several years they have been a transformative force in the open source software community and in the lives of women I know and care about. To show our support, Andromeda Yelton, Chris Bourg, Mark Matienzo and I have pledged to match up to $5120 of donations to the Ada Initiative made through this link before Tuesday September 16. That seems like a lot of money, right? Well, here’s my story about how the Ada Initiative helped me when I needed it most.

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Thanks to the Ada Initiative, having a conference code of conduct has become an established best practice, and it is changing conference culture for the better. I’m so proud of the many library conferences and organizations who have adopted Code of Conduct policies this year. However, just because a conference has a policy in place doesn’t mean there won’t be any problems. I’d like to share something that happened to me this year, the way the Ada Initiative helped me and the conference in question deal with it, and how things have since improved.

I gave a talk at code4lib a few years ago called “Vampires vs Werewolves: Ending the War Between Developers and Sysadmins with Puppet“. The talk was well received enough that it became a little bit of a meme, and last year PuppetConf asked me if I’d give an updated version of it for PuppetConf 2013.

It was exciting to participate in such a huge conference. PuppetConf is well funded and professionally managed. They have a code of conduct in place, friendly and helpful staffers, and high quality content. I was having a great time up until right before my talk.

Unfortunately, the talk before mine was titled “Nobody Has to Die Today: Keeping the Peace With the Other Meat Sacks.” I watched this talk on the video monitor from backstage, while getting hooked up to a lapel microphone, already a little nervous about facing such a large audience.

The speaker was a large heavily muscled man who was shouting more than speaking into the microphone. He was shouting about violence, and about how many people get murdered in the workplace. He particularly mentioned the fact that murder is the number one cause of death for women in the workplace. I felt my blood running cold. My body felt flooded with fear, and I wanted to run. He went on to discuss the many ways he personally had hurt people, through his work as a bouncer, in martial arts, or just because someone made him angry. At this point I was literally shaking. I have been on the receiving end of violence. I have known people who have been murdered. I know people, especially women, who have been hospitalized with the kinds of injuries he was graphically describing having inflicted. In spite of the small print disclaimer on his slides that this presentation was not encouraging violence, it was doing precisely that. If you don’t communicate technical requirements in the way he specifies, apparently, you will get what’s coming to you and you will deserve it.

The conference staff backstage were horrified. Some high profile people in the audience were walking out. It was clear that I was upset (I was trying not to hyperventilate at this point) and someone kept asking me if I wanted to file a code of conduct complaint. The thought of this made my panic even worse. I could easily picture filing a complaint and then paying for it with my life, when this guy found out and beat me to death in the parking lot after the conference. I said I did not want to file a complaint. I tried to take deep breaths and to not break down crying. I was determined to give my talk in spite of my shaky emotional state.

And I did. I delivered my presentation, which went surprisingly well, except for the fact that in the video I am swaying back and forth. I don’t usually do that when I speak, and I read it as the outward manifestation of how upset I was.

Afterwards, I thought for a long time about writing to the conference with my concerns. I started to do so several times, but I always chickened out. It was too easy for me to picture this guy learning my name and coming after me. Before you dismiss me as paranoid please consider the stories of Anita Sarkeesian and Kathy Sierra. Women in technology face worse than sexist jokes. We face assault. We face death threats. If you defend the status quo, understand what you are defending.

It wasn’t until this year’s PuppetConf call for proposals that I complained. The conference had liked my talk last year, and invited me to submit another talk this year. I wrote to decline, and told them why. I also sent a copy of my letter to Valerie Aurora, asking for the advice of the Ada Initiative.

I am very pleased to say that PuppetConf took my concerns seriously. Working with the Ada Initiative, they strengthened their code of conduct, put more screening measures in place for presentations, and improved training for conference staff on how to deal with problematic situations. PuppetLabs is an example of a company that is doing things right. They have specific outreach programs to get more women involved in the Puppet community and they are pursuing similar strategies to encourage participation from underrepresented racial groups. I feel good about the fact that I’m sending members of my staff to PuppetConf 2014, and at this point I would gladly speak at the conference again.

As upsetting as this incident was, this is a story with a happy ending. Because the Ada Initiative exists, both PuppetConf and I had someone to go to for guidance in how to improve the situation. Honestly, I still feel a little afraid about writing this post. But I also believe that nothing gets better until people take the risk of speaking out publicly. I am choosing to take that risk, in order to better communicate about why this work matters.

The Ada Initiative continues to do great things. You can read their 2014 progress report here. I am particularly excited about the Ally Skills workshop that will be offered at the Digital Library Federation Forum on October 29. Today, librarians are showing our love for the Ada Initiative. Watch for blog and social media posts from friends in library land who will be sharing more stories about why the Ada Initiative matters, and follow the action on twitter under the hashtag #libs4ada. Join us in supporting the Ada Initiative’s mission and donate today!

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